Recent drills are evidence that the Chinese air force is intent on forming synergy between its indigenous fifth-generation J-20 stealth fighters and its less newfangled warplanes for a holistic combat armada.

Xinhua reported last month that the ace J-20 jets flew together with other planes including the multirole J-16 strike fighter, which is modeled after the Sukhoi Su-35, as well as the semi-stealth J-10C mounted with active electronically scanned array fire-control radars, in a night drill aimed at forging a clearer division of roles among various types of jets in highly coordinated blitzes and aerial warfare.

With the J-20, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aims to achieve absolute air supremacy on the strength of its situational awareness to shield J-16 and J-10C jets from a foe’s fighters that launch long-range precision strikes against ground targets.

Observers say such collaboration could be a stopgap measure before Chengdu Aerospace Corporation, a subsidiary of the Aviation Industry Corp of China that makes the J-20, can ramp up its production.

Still, J-20 chief designer Yang Wei told People’s Daily that the versatile jet also had well-rounded ground-offensive capabilities, now that evolutions of air-superiority fighters have pressed them into more strike roles, blurring the lines between this type of aircraft and conventional multirole fighters.

J-20 stealth fighter in flight in Chengdu, Sichuan province.
A J-20 fighter in a test flight in Chengdu. Photo: PLA Daily

There have been reports that J-20s are still hard to spot after the jets entered service in February, not because of their stealth features but the fact that the Chengdu plane maker is still reeling from a production and talent crunch while J-20 orders continue to pile up.

Sources say that Chengdu Aerospace Corp’s 132 plant, J-20’s final assembly plant, is operating way below its operating capacity, with no new hangars built at the nearby Wenjiang airstrip operated by the state-owned aerospace conglomerate.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong-based Kanwa Defense Review reported in its June issue that six new hangars had been added to the Cangzhou base, a PLA Air Force stronghold in northern China’s Hebei province, a year ago.

The rather limited number of J-20s that have already rolled off the production line will likely to be deployed to Cangzhou for combat employment and retraining, as well as the lengthy process of compiling teaching materials, tactics references and operation manuals for the use of future J-20 pilots.

The PLAAF may have its first combat-ready J-20 brigade between 2019 and 2020.